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It's No 'Sanford & Son': Filmmaker Chronicles Real-Life 'Scrappers' in Chicago

'We didn’t know we were making a film about the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, until it happened, of course,' says filmmaker Brian Ashby.

This article  originally appeared on the Canadian Web site, Art Threat. For more great writing from Art Threat, subscribe to their  newsletter.

The beautifully shot and tenderly rendered Scrappers is a documentary that quietly follows two Chicago residents as they eke out a living from the salvaging of metallic refuse. It’s not fist-in-the-air advocacy filmmaking for the downtrodden, but in its own way, Scrappers gets under the skin, forcing a closer look at the stark indexes of inequality present in contemporary America. With a subtle grace and empathic approach this gorgeous film challenges the notion of the “American Dream” — the mainstream media and Hollywood fairytale that with a whole lot of hard work and ambition anyone can climb to the top.

As anyone who has visited
or lived in America very-well knows, that top is a small club of elites, clutching their privilege while turning others’ miseries into their inflated salaries. It’s why the mythology of mass accessibility of wealth and riches in America is called a dream, and this film, despite its sleepy sequences of rattling trucks drifting through dimly-lit snow-swept Chicago alleys, is very much non-fiction.

The dreams of scrappers are the dreams of America’s poor and marginalized — dreams of equality, dignity, fairness, justice, and with those, the basic elements of a comfortable life. The scrappers search for, collect and sell all kinds of scrap metals, working hard for their own scraps, that is, diminishing pay that further alienates them and their families from those further up the chain, but their hard work is matched by a positive attitude that shames most in the middle classes.

Avoiding a folksy caricature as well as polemic against America’s capitalist-class system of segregation and oppression,Scrappers feels more like a poem you have to let settle in your own time. The film has recently been made available as VOD at  iTunes and Amazon, and I took a moment to chat with Brian Ashby, one of the filmmakers behind the project.

Art Threat: How did you come across this particular story?

Brian Ashby: We (co-directors Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas and myself) were fascinated by the figure, literally, of the scrapper in Chicago: the pickup truck with constructed walls and rattling junk speeding down the alley, often glimpsed in passing through a fence or over a garage like a shark fin. In 2007, scrap prices were in a ludicrously inflated bubble, fueled by Chinese growth and trade, and it had caused a scrapping bonanza here, in a city with a layout that’s very easily traversed by its alleyways.

We hoped that spending time with scrappers would shed light on a number of broader economic and social problems. The film ended up touching largely on immigration and housing, and it was and is interesting times in Chicago for those issues. In a period of unprecedented deportation, immigrant mobilization has happened on a large scale in Chicago; it was also the end phase of the city’s Plan For Transformation, which demolished all high-rise public housing, shuffling thousands of people and changing the dynamics of many neighborhoods.

It took a long time to meet Oscar and Otis, the two characters, and gain access to their lives. We knew almost instantly that they had electric personalities, rock-solid commitments to their families, and cunning scrapper-senses. Over three years we ended up recording some very tough times that tested their spirits, and how they coped and came out the other side.

You take a somewhat non-interventionist mostly observational approach to your subject, and avoid commentary or too much information. Can you explain why you prefer this style of filmmaking? How do you see documentary as impacting audiences differently than say a news article or a book?

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